Vintage cocktail shakers: equal parts glamour and whimsy

A silver German owl-shaped cocktail shaker realized $8,750 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2018 at New Orleans Auction Galleries. Image courtesy of New Orleans Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers.

A silver German owl-shaped cocktail shaker realized $8,750 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2018 at New Orleans Auction Galleries. Image courtesy of New Orleans Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers.

NEW YORK — For amateur mixologists, a well-stocked home bar provides a great place to entertain guests by serving time-honored libations or their own recipes. Ever since the show Mad Men aired on television, there has been renewed interest in mid-century and antique cocktail shakers and barware for the home.

The cocktail shaker has its roots in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica as a closed jar gourd used to prepare spiced drinks brewed from fermented grain or concoctions derived from cacao, the plant from which we derive chocolate and cocoa. By the 19th century, the vessel was in widespread use as a two-piece canister, typically made of metal. Vintage silver examples are extra-desirable. Several patents were issued during this time, improving the design of the shaker and its strainer. During the Jazz Age and especially after the Prohibition era, the cocktail shaker was an integral part of the social landscape and a symbol of a glamorous life. The best cocktail shaker designs are alluring enough to tempt teetotalers to buy and display them as pieces of functional sculpture.

The cocktail shaker is a must-have for any home bartender, and several designers and companies have produced wonderfully whimsical or architecturally-striking forms that transformed the tool into a piece of art. If you can imagine it, whatever it is, there’s probably a shaker out there in that likeness. Shakers have taken the shapes of lighthouses, animals, rockets, bells, bullets, hourglasses and even a woman’s shoe-clad leg.

A skyscraper cocktail shaker designed by Louis W. Rice sold for $14,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2021 at Heritage Auctions. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

A skyscraper cocktail shaker designed by Louis W. Rice sold for $14,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2021 at Heritage Auctions. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Several high-profile American designers created skyscraper-form shakers, including William Waldo Dodge, Jr. and Louis W. Rice. A circa-1928 skyscraper-form shaker by Rice in electroplated nickel silver sold for $14,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2021 at Heritage Auctions. Its stepped form is evocative of the modernist architecture that reshaped New York in the early to mid-20th century. The handle and spout are reminiscent of smokestacks.

A sterling silver silo cocktail shaker by Lambert Bros. made $20,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2021 at Abington Auction Gallery. Image courtesy of Abington Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

A sterling silver silo cocktail shaker by Lambert Bros. made $20,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2021 at Abington Auction Gallery. Image courtesy of Abington Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

Another sought-after building-form shaker is a sterling silver piece in the form of a barn silo by Lambert Bros. One example achieved $20,000 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2021 at Abington Auction Gallery.

A Napier for Dunhill trombone cocktail shaker achieved $7,500 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2020 at Revere Auctions. Image courtesy of Revere Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

A Napier for Dunhill trombone cocktail shaker achieved $7,500 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2020 at Revere Auctions. Image courtesy of Revere Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Another notable vintage cocktail shaker is a pump-style Napier for Dunhill trombone shaker that earned $7,500 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2020 at Revere Auctions. The design for this circa-1925 silver-plated piece was credited to Alfred Dunhill. It takes the form of a stylized slide-trombone topped with a fitted pump that would serve as the trombone’s mouthpiece, if it was a real musical instrument, and the spout is the slide. The bartender would mix the drink by pumping the mouthpiece. Founded in 1878 in North Attleboro, Massachusetts, Napier made jewelry but was better known as a leading maker of modernist silver objects. It also made an iconic penguin-form shaker, which was featured in a 2016 barware exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art.

Among aeronautical-themed cocktail shaker designs by J.A. Henckels is a chromium plated Aeroplane that attained $16,797 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2020 at Lyon & Turnbull. Image courtesy of Lyon & Turnbull and LiveAuctioneers.

A J.A. Henckels-designed chromium plated Aeroplane cocktail shaker attained $16,797 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2020 at Lyon & Turnbull. Image courtesy of Lyon & Turnbull and LiveAuctioneers.

Transportation-themed shakers won a strong following in the late 1920s and beyond. The German company J.A. Henckels produced travel cocktail sets featuring shakers in the form of a zeppelin and an airplane (which, in this context, is sometimes referred to as a monoplane). A circa-1930 chromium plated plane-form shaker by Henckels realized $16,797 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2020 at Lyon & Turnbull. The fuselage disassembles into more than a dozen pieces, including the shaker, stirring spoons, hip flasks and more.

Vintage cocktail shakers that take the forms of animals are popular and numerous, and range from penguins, roosters and owls to rabbits, bears, cats and dogs. A highly realistic silver owl, possibly the work of the Ludwig Neresheimer Co. in Germany, realized $8,750 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2018 at New Orleans Auction Galleries.

As you plan holiday gatherings, consider investing in a vintage cocktail shaker or two. It will not just serve up a great sidecar or martini; it will serve as a great conversation piece, too.

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